Jonny Forsyth
Jonny is a Director of Mintel Food & Drink, focusing on creating ‘big picture’ thought leadership content such as what Gen Z and the metaverse mean for the food and drink industry.

Recently, A-B InBev-owned US beer brand, Budweiser – perhaps best known in the UK for its “wassup” adverts – launched an ill-judged attack on craft beer drinkers.

In an advert aired in the key slot on Super Bowl Sunday (a time when Americans watching TV adverts is as much of a spectacle as the game itself), Budweiser proclaims that is ‘not to be fussed over’ and that it is ‘brewed for drinking, not dissecting’. All the while, the advert shows less than flattering images of moustachioed wannabe hipster males fussing over their (craft) beers. Meanwhile, the ad’s parting shot is: ‘Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale’, juxtaposed with images of confident men swishing (not sipping) down their Buds.

Budweiser’s “anti-craft” superbowl commercial, 2015

It has quickly led to a furious social media backlash from craft drinkers and brewers. For example blogger The Beer Babe has labelled it ‘by far the most clear and definitive anti-craft beer advertisement I’ve ever seen’, while micro-brewery, Abita, quickly posted a video declaring ‘Yeah, we made a pumpkin peach beer. And it was good. Damn good’.

34% of 21-34 year-olds now choose an on-premise venue based on whether it has a wide selection of beers, compared to just 25% for all US adults

The plot gets even more confusing when considering that Bud-owned A-B InBev’s (ABI) strategy since 2011, when it bought Chicago microbrewer Goose Island, has been to buy up regional American craft brands to add to its portfolio. Only last month, it bought a fourth craft brewer, Seattle’s Elysian Brewing, which rose to fame on the back of its pumpkin flavoured craft beers!

However, ABI’s thinking (muddled though it is) needs to be understood in the context of Budweiser being one of its key revenue drivers in the US. Excluding Bud Light (which is to all intents and purposes, a separate brand), Budweiser is still the fourth largest selling beer brand in US retail. Budweiser has also been consistently losing sales to craft brands since its peak in 1988, and ABI recently revealed that 44% of today’s 21- to 27-year-old US drinkers have actually never tried Budweiser, something unthinkable even a decade ago. Another striking statistic, illustrating their contrasting fortunes, is that in 2013 volume sales of total US craft beer overtook Budweiser, for the first time ever.

The problem for ABI is that while in the 1980/90s, young men defined themselves by belonging to a mainstream group, something which reaffirmed their fragile masculinity. Fast-forward to the past decade and the Millennial generation are seeking to define themselves by what makes them different and discerning – not the similarities they share with their peer group. Hence, their love of craft beer with its emphasis on quality, uniqueness and constant experimentation. For example, Mintel’s On-premise Alcohol Consumption Trends US 2014 report shows that a third (34%) of 21-34 year-olds now choose an on-premise venue based on whether it has a wide selection of beers, compared to just 25% for all US adults.

Neither is Budweiser alone among big global brewers publicly yearning for a lost age. Recent Australian number one beer, Victoria Bitter (VB) has seen a similar downfall, falling victim of the notoriously macho Australian culture going hyper metro-sexual.

Then owner Foster Group’s response (back in 2010) was similar to ABI: A big budget TV ad mocking the new generation of more “feminised” drinkers and yearning for the uncomplicated male from a decade back. Much like Budweiser, VB’s spot feels like a helpless raging against the dying of the light.

VB’s ‘Real Men’ TV ad campaign, Australia, 2010

However, there is a crucial difference in execution. While VB’s advert feel out of touch, it is also very funny, and quite gently nostalgic in its tone. In contrast and whether intentional or not, ABI’s recent Bud ad has a real edge to it, made worse by the context of America’s culture wars: the fight between “latte liberal progressives” and social conservatives fighting for the return of the “real America”.

VB learnt the hard way that TV advertising cannot change, but can merely reflect, deeply embedded cultural attitudes among the younger generation. For Budweiser, this lesson could be a lot more painful, with the brand risking becoming a byword for not only being out of touch, but being intolerant in an America more diverse than ever.

Jonny is Mintel’s Global Drinks Analyst, having previously been responsible for researching and writing all of Mintel’s UK drinks reports. He brings ten years of experience working in the marketing industry, with roles at Starcom Mediavest, AB-Inbev, and Trinity Mirror. He is a regular contributor in global and national media outlets such as BBC, CNBC and Bloomberg.